Arsalan Kazemi's Quest to Become NBA's 1st Drafted Iranian-Born Player

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2015

AP Images

The court at UCLA was skidded up Jan. 19, 2013. 

That was the day No. 21-ranked University of Oregon, a football school not known as much for its basketball prowess, traveled south to end the Bruins' 10-game winning streak, extending a seven-game victory string of its own. A CBS nationally televised contest early in the conference season tends to show off the "Wait, who's that really good guy I don't know?" candidates.

By no coincidence, Jan. 19, 2013, was the day the casual college basketball fan met Arsalan Kazemi, the Oregon senior fresh off a transfer from Rice University in Houston, who would eventually become the first Iranian-born player to be drafted into the NBA when the Washington Wizards took him 54th overall in the 2013 draft. Shortly thereafter, they dealt him to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Kazemi finished that day with a gritty 12 points and 11 boards, showing off his usual scrappy style, diving for balls, bodying up opposing players and playing smart team defense. That stat line was hardly unusual for him—he averaged 12.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game during his three years at Rice—but it was the first time he'd done it on the big stage.

It didn't stop there.

"I just look at the team, and whatever we are missing, I just try to bring that to the team," said Kazemi, who is now a member of the 76ers summer-league squad after spending the last couple of seasons playing overseas in Iran and China. "If it’s energy, I just try to be high in that. If they don't have a bench captain, I try to be a bench captain."

Now, he's trying his darndest to become the second Iranian to suit up and play in an actual NBA game, following in the steps of Hamed Haddadi, who went undrafted but played for the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns from 2008 to 2013.

Jul 14, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; New York Knicks forward Cleanthony Early (17) shoots against the defense of Philadelphia 76ers forward Arsalan Kazemi (14) during an NBA Summer League game at Thomas & Mack Center. The Knicks won the game in overtime, 84-
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Kazemi became a premier big man as his time at Oregon continued. He ended up leading the NCAA in defensive rebounding rate as a senior. But his skill set hasn't necessarily translated to the NBA game well enough for him to catapult into the highest level of the pros. 

He's still just 6'7", and if you're a big who's supposed to be a role player, you probably need to do one of two things: shoot from three or protect the rim. Size prohibits that. So does the lack of athleticism, even if his energy is off the charts.

Kazemi's accent may barely be detectable now, but just because the 25-year-old—who now calls Houston his home—has comfortably assimilated to American life, it doesn't mean everything was perfect at the beginning.

"I was crying when I came here for like four hours," said Kazemi, who came to play at the Patterson School in North Carolina during 2008, when he was just 17 years old. "I was the mama's boy, you know?"

Before Kazemi came over from his hometown Isfahan, Iran, his family used to travel with him on his FIBA trips with the national team, where he was the captain of the under-18 national squad.

He was barely old enough to operate a car when he left home. But that doesn't mean he lacked drive. 

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Patterson was one of the better prep schools in the area, home to players such as Jordan Hill, Hassan Whiteside and Wesley Johnson, among others over the years. Kazemi isn't the best athlete in the gym, but while hanging around some of the best competition he'd ever seen, something funny happened: His game began to take form.

"They had like 17 Division I players," Kazemi joked. "Everybody could jump over the rim. So I was like, 'I gotta figure something else out.'"

That mentality bred scrappiness. 

Kazemi isn't just a human mop because of his thick beard or floppy hair, both of which he's grown out since his days in Eugene. Check out any game he is playing in, and you're going to see him on the floor. It's as present as Lysol on Cinderella's shelf. 

That's what he does: He cleans up messes. 

A man can thrive in muddled situations, but what happens when circumstances become chaotic and it's not your fault? And what happens when that problem starts to develop maggots?

Such was the issue after Kazemi, a Muslim, finished up his third year at Rice, where he starred as one of the team's best players. After a trio of great years, he bounced for Oregon—not because he wanted to leave, but because he didn't feel comfortable staying.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

At the end of Kazemi's sole season as a Duck, Sports Illustrated came out with a detailed report of why he, along with a number of other players, transferred from the school after alleging that then-Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan had made discriminatory remarks toward him and others within the program.

AL.com condensed the crux of the report:

• Greenspan told [former assistant coach Marco] Morcos to "recruit more terrorists" on multiple occasions.

• Greenspan told Morcos, "All you need is a backpack, and you are ready to bomb the school."

• Greenspan asked Kazemi, when he was talking to another player in Arabic, if they were having an "Al-Qaeda meeting."

• Greenspan encouraged airport security to thoroughly search the bags of the three players because of their Middle Eastern heritage.

• Kazemi said Greenspan told him and other players in January 2012 that, "We only need one more guy to complete the Axis of Evil."

• Kazemi alleged that, when talking in a foreign language to another player, Greenspan said, "Stop speaking in this foreign language because you could be plotting against us."

Kazemi didn't want to leave Rice. But what other choice did he have inside such a poisonous environment? So, in the summer of 2012, he packed up his bags and left the university he wanted to call home for the entirety of his collegiate career. 

"It was a sad moment for me and for everybody on the team," Kazemi recalled. "We were there together. We were trying to build a program, and I remember I was just fine because I didn't want to leave Houston."

He still lives in Houston, goes back to Rice, still works with certain advisers who helped him through his toughest moments there. He has friends in the area and the program to this day. But in his words, "It was something at the time that should have been done." Greenspan resigned from Rice in 2013.

It's not like Kazemi didn't have offers on the table when he decided to leave a program that plummeted to 5-26 upon his departure. The kid was producing at a high level. But leaving one school for another after your junior year is no one's preference. After trying to go to UCLA but eventually not being able to work out the situation because of issues with transferring his major, he wound up at Oregon.

That's all behind him now. In some ways, he's a hero for Iranian basketball fans—the player who has made it further than anyone else in his country's history.

"I was the first Iranian to play NCAA, the first whatever, whatever, whatever," said the man who owns the title of First Iranian Basketball Player to Play in Fill-in-the-Blank. "I'm just trying to do whatever I can do. People do love basketball in my country."

They do—enough to carry them in an unexpected direction, apparently. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

You'd think when Kazemi traveled to play pro ball for Petrochimi Bandar Imam in Iran during 2013, giving him the opportunity to be the closest to his family that he'd been since moving to North Carolina at age 17, he'd become the star of the league.

And he was, but in somewhat of an ironic way.

"I'm not gonna lie to you. They were all mad at me because I didn't stay in the NBA," Kazemi said with a smile. "They were like, 'What are you doing here? Go back! Go back!'"

But he didn't have a say in the matter. When the 76ers dealt for him, they decided stashing him internationally was the way to go. So, he did a year in Iran. He followed it up with another in China. And now he finds himself at Las Vegas Summer League once again, playing for a contract that may never come.

"I was like, this is out of my hands. You just have to trust the process and see what happens," he said, spewing the company line of a team he hasn't even made yet. "Hopefully, they won't be mad at me this year."

The Sixers still own Kazemi's rights for another year, which means if he wants to come into the league, he's going to have to do it with Philly (unless the Sixers waive or trade him at some point in the near future). But since he was a second-round pick, he doesn't have a guaranteed contract.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie will have to sign him to a free roster spot for Kazemi to become the second Iranian NBA player, and though the Sixers have loads of cap space and some non-guaranteed contracts, they are running out of opportunities on the roster.

Philly had only two free spots heading into summer league, assuming Robert Covington, JaKarr Sampson and Hollis Thompson (all of whom are still non-guaranteed for next year) are sticking around. But it's already given one of those openings to the undrafted Scottie Wilbekin, while Pierre Jackson scooped up another. Even 2015 second-rounder J.P. Tokoto seems to stand a better shot at making the team for the upcoming season. 

So, where does that leave Kazemi? Likely somewhere on the outside looking in, readying to find a contract outside the U.S. once again and possibly having to give the same message to the Iranian fans who pull for him so hard.

That won't stop the hard screens or the scampering for rebounds or the high-IQ basketball or, especially, the maturation of his game and personality. 

"When I first came here...I was like, 'I wanna go back,'" he self-evaluated. "I needed to grow up, but I guess the little boy became a man."

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise.


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